How to Change Minds: Blaise Pascal on the Art of Persuasion
By Maria Popova
If it weren’t for the “backfire effect” — the strange psychological phenomenon behind our propensity for self-righteousness — changing people’s minds wouldn’t be such an uncomfortable luxury. One might even say that moving minds — our own as well as those of others — is among the most effortful labor there is.
Nearly half a millennium before modern psychologists identified the three elements of persuasion — attunement, buoyancy, and clarity — French physicist, philosopher, inventor, and mathematician Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623–August 19, 1662) intuited this mechanism as he arrived at a great truth about the secret of persuasion: Pascal came to see that the surest way of defeating the erroneous views of others is not by bombarding the bastion of their self-righteousness but by slipping in through the backdoor of their beliefs.
In Pensées (free ebook | public library) — his foundational masterwork consisting of 923 fragmentary philosophical and theological meditations — Pascal examines the best strategy for changing people’s minds, distilling the art of persuasion to its essence:
When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.
Long before we invented psychology and learned to apply it in reverse, Pascal adds:
People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.
In a sentiment that David Foster Wallace would come to echo centuries later in his enduring definition of what makes a great leader, Pascal frames persuasion not as a factor of control but as something predicated first and foremost on empathy — on empathic insight into the context and concerns that animate the other person’s mind:
Eloquence … persuades by sweetness, not by authority… Eloquence is an art of saying things in such a way — (1) that those to whom we speak may listen to them without pain and with pleasure; (2) that they feel themselves interested, so that self-love leads them more willingly to reflection upon it.
It consists, then, in a correspondence which we seek to establish between the head and the heart of those to whom we speak on the one hand, and, on the other, between the thoughts and the expressions which we employ. This assumes that we have studied well the heart of man so as to know all its powers, and then to find the just proportions of the discourse which we wish to adapt to them. We must put ourselves in the place of those who are to hear us, and make trial on our own heart of the turn which we give to our discourse in order to see whether one is made for the other, and whether we can assure ourselves that the hearer will be, as it were, forced to surrender.
Ultimately, Pascal suggests, the art of persuasion by eloquence is not one that grants permission for prettifying falsehoods but one that invites the beauty of reality to reveal itself:
[Eloquence] requires the pleasant and the real; but the pleasant must itself be drawn from the true.
Eloquence is a painting of thought; and thus those who, after having painted it, add something more, make a picture instead of a portrait.
Pensées is rife with Pascal’s eloquent revelations about the human experience, exploring everything from morality to the myth of originality to the relationship between intuition and the intellect. Complement this particular excerpt with contemporary psychology’s lens on why changing minds is so challenging, Daniel Pink on how to move people with integrity, and Kahlil Gibran’s breathtakingly beautiful poem about the absurdity of our self-righteousness.
Published May 20, 2015